UTMB Part 2 – The Race
My first race of 2017 was in April and I got a spot from the reserve list in the South Downs way 50 again. I thought it would be a good one to keep me focused and be a decent training run so to speak. It was a disaster; my left knee became so painful at about 17 miles and for the first time since I’d started running I had to pullout of a race. I limped on to 27 miles and thought of the big picture of, I don’t need to finish this race, I need to find out what’s wrong and get it fixed before September 1st. It was frustrating but I knew I’d done the right thing and from speaking with other runners and telling them I was doing the UTMB they all agreed. One runner who was a sub 24 hour 100 miler told me, ‘start slow what ever you do, don’t go off blazing’, he did and he said the race almost killed him taking 44 hours to finish and you couldn’t pay him to do it again. Note taken mate.
I sought more help and friend of my Dads put me in touch with a superb physiotherapist. It wasn’t my knee it was my I.T. band, glutes and thigh muscles which were putting pressure on my knees so he put me on a strengthening program for the next few months as I had another ultra in Snowdonia in July. I followed the program and was well disciplined, all be it a few beers and a couple late nights here and there. I came straight off tour to head to Wales via the longest train journey of my life and finished the Snowdonia Quarter in 13 hours finishing in 52nd place from 128 starters. I was happy, as I had no knee problems and felt strong, I really needed that race to go well and it did which helped me mentally for preparing for the UTMB.
The rest of the summer was busy with festivals and gigs. I kept disciplined and trained as much as possible alongside my friend and guitar tech JP who is a great running partner whilst on tour. We made the most of the mountains in France and Austria and the trails in Switzerland and Germany through torrential rain and extreme heat and got some decent ascents and runs in. I encountered another knee problem whilst turning around on a steep hill, which really did my head in, and it was to stay with me until the beginning of the UTMB. I had acupuncture and a massage to help it. From all the training and running my left thigh was like a brick and needed some real work. I hoped it wouldn’t cause me any problems during the race. I had one last run out to the New Forest, which ended up with me un-inspired by the long fume filled roads that take you there from Southampton. So I ended up walking through the woods and eating a giant sausage roll for company, my prep work wasn’t going great, I was anxious as hell and just couldn’t quite get my head together.
A few days after the sausage stroll the time came for me and the whole family to pack our things and head to Gatwick for a week in the Alps, I’d thought about going on my own but that would have been stupid as having loved ones with you really helps and they were all acting as my support team. The nerves had grown over the last few weeks and I was really anxious about the race, the thought of the accents was worrying. There are hardly any real hills in Southampton and certainly no mountains!
We were staying at a lovely hotel in Les Houches that I’d previously stayed in when I was last in the Alps climbing Mont Blanc. I couldn’t wait to share the place with my family and folks as my dad had never seen the Alps and I knew this place was picture perfect in its setting. The weather was beautiful when we arrived and it felt special to be back.
Bringing a bit of music into this, so what with Archive and BirdPen having a decent following in France, a friend of the band had let someone know in Chamonix I was doing the race, this then went to someone who was part of the UTMB. Catherine Poletti had been in touch about me doing an interview for UTMB TV and the next morning I saw a tweet from UTMB that said I was live on air in half an hour! It was 9am when I read the tweet and I was sat on the toilet at the time. SHIT! (Quite literally) I thought, something’s gone wrong here. I made a quick call and changed the plans so I could make it into Chamonix and head to the UTMB HQ. I met with Catherine and I felt strange but really excited to go into the hub of it all and see all the people working on the race. I’m used to these sorts of things within my own career in the music biz, but I guess not being a professional runner made it quite over whelming in a way. I was introduced to the two English-speaking commentators Randall and Keith and chatted for a while about music and my running. It felt surreal to be chatting live on air and chipping in on the CCC race that was happening as we spoke (the UTMB has 5 races in all of different lengths taking place over a week). Over the last few years I’d been watching and listening to these two dudes commentating on the UTMB from my home on my laptop and now here I was, right involved in this amazing event. I did another interview for the French speaking channel with a nice chap called Martin which was also a great experience to be able to speak not only about my passion, which is of course music, but also my sometime ridiculous hobby, running, perfect! I left the HQ under glorious sunshine, perched up at a café right where the start of the race begins at Place de Triangle l’Amitie and gathered my thoughts. Slightly overcome by everything that was happening I took stock in my mind, I realised I was now part of this race, by no means as an elite runner of any sorts but as someone, who like most others had dreamt of the race, fought to get the points, took the chance and was now here. I started to feel better about things and thought ‘ I’m here, I’m not scared of the distance, all I can do is try, get my head down, and smile when it hurts’.
My eldest daughter who is 4 ran the mini OCC that afternoon which was a nice moment. After some sweets and food I registered for the UTMB, which took a few hours, I then grabbed a spare battery for my head torch and ran the 10k or so back to the hotel, I was feeling calm and good for the race.
The weather over the next day changed and the rain came hard. The weather can change so quickly in the Alps and with this it can make routes dangerous. Word quickly went round the route would be slightly changed due to snow on some of the highest points. I read on the Friday morning hours before the race would start that two changes were being made, they weren’t massive changes but they were the crossing of the Col Des Pyramides Calcaires and Tete Aux Vents in La Flegere, due to plummeting temperatures of -9 and forecasted snow. Wouldn’t be an ultra marathon without a bit of dramatic weather now would it.
So Friday mid afternoon I got dressed in my ultra trail running kit, checked all my stuff and then with some hugs, best wishes and tears I was ready to go. My wife Nicky drove me to Chamonix for the start of the race. I thought it better to start the race alone as my family, The Manglebird AKA Mike AKA Mickey, and my Sister in Law Vix and Nephew Henry would all be in Les Houches to give me my first cheers, which was 6 miles into the course. After a nice coffee, a hug and some quiet words together Nicky left to head back to Les Houches. I sat at the café listening, soaking up the ambience and watching all the runners making their way to the start, I tweeted a picture of my pack and wrote ‘Right then, lets do this #UTMB2017.’
I stood amongst the runners, sandwiched in tight whilst the commentators were rallying up the crowds when I suddenly realised the female announcer was speaking about a runner who was a “famous” musician and how they thought it was great he was taking part. She said my name and then they played Like A Mountain over the PA. The whole song played, I couldn’t quite believe it really. It gave me strength in that what I do was being played to all these other runners, I also thought, man I can’t not finish this race after all this hype. It was a surreal but proud and lovely moment for me, and one I will treasure forever. Some minutes later the Icelandic style war chant applause came and then Vangelis’ Conquest Of Paradise started to play and the start of the UTMB 2017 began. Slowly moving out under the UTMB arch of Place de Triangle l’Amitie and through the streets of Chamonix I started the race I’d been training for the last 3 years, this was it.
I took it nice and easy and got into a nice rhythm quite quickly running into Les Houches. We came out just near the hotel where I was staying at so that made things feel good for some reason, I suppose a point of familiarity was a comfort to me. It was great to see everyone as I ran through and a quick group hug was had, I was already looking forward to seeing these amazing people in my life again at the various check points along the course, they would give me the strength I needed along the way. Onto St Gervais, by this time with head torch on, where I think I played a gig with BirdPen after climbing Mont Blanc. The atmosphere was awesome here and I grabbed some fruit and coca cola. I thought I was supposed to meet Mike and my Dad here but I was wrong so I dawdled a little bit looking for them but felt ok and was in there in good time. Moving on I knew the next stage of the race was going to get a lot harder with the huge ascents of les Contamines, La Balme, Col Du Bonhomme and then down to les Chapieux. At Les Contamines I was with dad in the aid station and I’d just got one of my water bottles filled with coca cola, I bent over to get some food from the bag and the fizz erupted in my face, I didn’t quite know what was happening at first and then realised, a coke explosion right in the eye, how ridiculous, we laughed. Seeing as this was such a long distance over a couple of days some of the race is a bit of a blur really, I can remember coming down to les Chapieux and there being a big welcoming fire and seeing Mike and my Dad and them telling me I was doing really well. After that it was a big long climb through the early hours, the temperature lowering by each footstep, I kept thinking, when is the sun going to come up, it seemed to take forever, it was so cold and looking up just near the rise I could just make out a dark blue sky starting to appear up with the snowy peaks of Col De La Seigne. Everything was dusted in a freezing frosty white and as we made it to the checkpoint and into Italy the marshals said nobody could stop and that we had to go straight down where it was warmer. I was ok with that and after a long first night couldn’t wait to feel the warm sun. I got down to Lac Combal and had some pasta and a coffee for breakfast, first night done, sun shining and still up for it. I set out again at around 8am and just as I was on the path out my sister in law Vix jumped out of a van, she’d only just made it, I didn’t know she was going to be there, it was a nice surprise so after a quick hug and a photo I was off again chatting to a Canadian bloke with a massive beard, he was mellow and reminded me a bit of E the singer from the band The Eels.
Next goal was to get to Courmayeur, I knew the whole family would be there and couldn’t wait to see them and get a little bit of rest, the route down was the first really difficult and quite painful descent, it was hot and the route was a zig zag of tree roots and steep step downs and after 78 km, the legs coming down were taking it hard. I made it down and to Courmayeur where Nicky was waiting with the family, seeing the kids and mum was great and made me feel happy. I took some time and ate some food in the aid station and Nicky told me I was doing great and well ahead of the cut off times, I charged my watch a bit as it was almost dead which was a bit annoying, I hadn’t turned on the Ultra Trac setting so the GPS had really dragged the battery down. After some watermelon juice and a change of socks I headed back out into the sunshine for a big climb up to Refuge Bertone and then onto Refuge Bonatti. I didn’t stay long at Bertone and by the time I got to Bonatti I was starting to feel really tired and a little bit sick and starry eyed. Vix and Henry were there which was great but I couldn’t really say much. I sat and had some coffee, coughed a fair bit and generally just felt spent, nauseas and weird. The weather was also changing quickly, I remember Henry saying, “I think it’s starting to snow”. Rain was definitely coming and it was getting cold again. The next stop was down to Arnouvaz and by the time I got there it was pouring down, the descent felt really long and it’s quite mad thinking that its still at 2000 meters above sea level. Remember I come from Southampton, there are no mountains there. The drink station was really busy and people looked knackered, cold and tad spooked and soaked. People were asking if the ascent up to Grand Col Ferret was still happening because of the awful weather, the marshals said yes it was and that all waterproof and warm clothing should be put on for this part of the race. I had some soup, layered up, got my head together as best I could and braved it back out into the wind and the torrential rain to get to the top of another massive hill and cross into the land of fine chocolate and nice watches that is Switzerland. The weather up was so grim, the hail was burning the side of my face and every time I looked up I could just make out the blurry other runners as far into the distance as I could see, they all permanently seemed so far away and the climb went on and on and on. Funnily enough I made up on 86 places during that section and don’t remember what the top was like at all. That good progress would all fall away soon enough though as by now I was really sleep deprived, my brain was starting to play tricks on me and the next night was looming. I tiredly made it to La Fouly and hoped I’d see someone I knew there, I’d sent a text message to Nicky saying I wasn’t feeling so good mentally and was so tired, I also for some random reason was craving a cheese and ham sandwich and had asked for someone to get me one. Nobody made it to La Fouly so I didn’t stay long and knew if I could get to Champex Lac I could re group and try and get a much, much needed power nap in, sort my head out and carry on. The rain continued the long descent down which for the first time was mostly on the road and was painfully slow and then the climb up to Champex Lac took an eternity. The sleep depravation was in full grim swing and every rock and tree root under head torch light was a grim spooky face staring back at me, the skeleton faced stones kept coming at me as it poured with rain, it was the toughest, muddiest climb I’ve ever done and hopefully ever will have to do. The UTMB was starting to haunt me in the woods and I was hanging on for my sanity. I made it to the aid station at Champex Lac at 9.37pm and fell apart emotionally, it was a real low of the race, but at least I wasn’t throwing up in the bin like the bloke next to me did.
I think at this point I need to say just how amazing my family and friends were as support team in this race, I honestly don’t think I could have got through it like I did without them, they were tired from being up almost 2 nights, driving, trekking, checking locations and progress and generally worrying about me as well and they didn’t falter, this came to it’s full fruit at Champex Lac and Nicky, Dad and Mikes support and guidance got me through it. I had a lot of hours in the bank and it was now time to truly cash them in, I stayed at Champex Lac for almost 2 hours, I managed to get my first running power nap in, changed out of those sodden clothes. Mike had managed to get me that cheese and ham sandwich but sadly the novelty had worn of by that time and I only managed one bite of it, I stuck to the soup and fruit, some more coffee and then went though what was left on the map. I’d always known the last three climbs on the UTMB are really hard and had been looking at them on the map previous to the race, three more climbs and then it’s the end, simple! With Mike and my Dad’s ringing words of “it’s 45km mate, just over a marathon, the sun will be up soon and you’ve done it” Cheers fellas.
The sun did come up and the rain finally stopped, the morning was warm and I felt alive again (coffee is so great) even if it was for just an hour or so. I went on through to Trient, had another power nap under a massive blanket, craved salt and vinegar crisps but had indigestion so couldn’t stomach them at all plus the salty soup was proving difficult as well. Good old anti-acid remedies in the name of Rennies and then back out and on to Vallorcine which would be the last assisted aid station. Most of the runners I met from now on seemed more relaxed, all be it absolutely knackered but mellow with it because most of us if not all of us at this point knew we had time in the bank to finish the race, I met a few Americans and a lovely chap from China as the sun started to shine again. At Vallorcine the whole family was there which was warmly awesome and they brought some fresh pain au chocolates and with coffee it went down a real treat and tasted amazing! Another little power snooze and at 9.22 am said “I’ll see you all at the finish then”. I knew I still had a little way to go but the skulls and ghouls of the rainy brain night in the woods had turned to soft animals and smiling faces, I was still exhausted but able to get my head around it, my legs were still working, my stomach was fine, my hands ached from the constant use of the sticks but I knew Chamonix was much, much closer now.
The final 29 kilometres were basked in beautiful alpine sunshine, the downs hurt and were long and awkward but it didn’t matter anymore. The final climb which was slightly changed from the original route took us to La Fouly which was a long stony ascend up. At the last aid station I had a few sips of coke, a refill of water and then it was just 8km down to the finish. A guy called David spotted my name and asked if I was the guy who was mentioned before the start of the race and about the song that played – he said that it sounded cool. That was nice of him. By the time I set out again it was hot so my pack was filled with everything including my sticks, which I stopped using for the first time in the whole race. I should add my sticks had been superb and certainly helped along the route, they kind of become part of you during a race, they’ve certainly become a very important part of trail running for me now. Coming down into Chamonix I got a burst of adrenalin filled energy and all the pain just went away, a chap I was running next to looked at me said “We’ve done it man” and we fist bumped. I ran freely through the streets high on adrenalin. The support was truly amazing and everywhere people applauded and banged the advertisement signs. With around 150 metres to go on the final bend my Dad appeared and we had a triumphant hug, I was emotional and had waves of near crying with every step, high fives with strangers, peace signs and “cheers” as I came through to the final straight. Just near the finish line I saw Nicky with our 10 month old baby in her arms and my eldest daughter who was shocked by all the noise and excitement so darted back into the crowd instead of crossing the line with me, Nicky followed me under the archway and we hugged. I felt amazing, alive and had completed the UTMB 2017 in 43 Hours 22 minutes and 11 seconds. It was done.
On reflection: I think if you set your mind on something it proves you can achieve things you thought were just a dream or a crazy idea. When there’s something inside you, an instinct or gut feeling that says quietly in your mind “I reckon I could give that a go” then listen to that little voice, it will be scary and daunting and sometimes seem damn right bloody ridiculous but as the saying goes, you’ll never know unless you give it a try. I did exactly that and completed one of the hardest races on earth. Do it.
Onwards good people of the universe!
I am Dave Pen
Some extra photos below:
UTMB Part 1 – The Lottery
I’m not really sure how to start this, coffee helps. I’m sat in my dining room at my wife’s old family table at around 250 feet above sea level in my hometown of Southampton. It’s Friday, the sky is grey and it’s 8.05am. I look out on to the back garden, I can see two houses from where I am sat, the lawn is green and the apple tree is fruitful. There are no mountains here.
This time last month I was preparing to run one of the toughest races on earth, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). The UTMB is a race that covers 106 miles with 10,000 metres of accent (30,000 ft) and traverses three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland). I first heard and saw this race around 4 years ago on Youtube whilst researching climbing Mont Blanc for charity. After seeing the dramatic landscapes and hearing the emotional music attached to many videos and clips of the race I knew it was something I really wanted to do, it properly sucked me in. In 2014 I spent some time walking in the Alps as part of a charity walk and climb of Mont Blanc; the scenery and terrain were stunning. I knew the UTMB was taking part at the same time as this trip, and after finishing a failed attempt to summit Mont Blanc (see blog from 2013) whilst I was back in Les Houches (where the race runs through at about 6 miles), I remember standing there watching and applauding the runners coming through. I really got a taste for the vibe of the race with its amazing support and it being one of the most elite ultra marathons in the world. I had to make it happen to be a part of this event in the not too distant future.
For the UTMB you have to qualify by earning points from other races and then you go into a lottery to get a place so nothing is guaranteed. Plus if you don’t get in on first attempt you have to re qualify by earning the points again, this can take 3 years, by then you will gladly get an automatic place, so it takes time to get in. I’d only ran one marathon before wanting to run the UTMB and that was The Snowdonia Marathon so I guess I’d started with the right kind of vibe to get into it. I should add you need 15 points to enter the UTMB. I ran a few more marathons and my first ultra over the next year and researched and found some of the qualifying races in the UK I could do to earn the points for the UTMB. I had gone from running 10k road races to full on trail runner in less than a year and couldn’t get enough of being out there in the wild, running trails and getting away from the chaos and noise. A company called Centurion Running put on some great events and two of those events are the South Downs way 50 mile ultra and South Downs way 100 mile ultra. Perfect for me as part of The South Downs Way isn’t far from where I live. I remember the 50 miler being fun and exciting and I finished that race strong in 9 hours 39 Minutes which earned me 4 points. A good start then. Then a couple of months later it was time for my first 100 mile race being the South Downs way 100. It started in a city near to where I live, and I’d already done half of it before in the previous 50 miler so it was all good and convenient for me. It was my first race that would take me over the running for 24 hours mark, it was also my first full night of running by head torch so a lot of new experiences were had. I finished the race in a lot of pain, my legs just kind of stopped working at around 80 miles so I hobbled on to the finish to earn the 6 points and came in at 25 Hours 51 minutes. My legs took some time to heal after this and for the first time I sought some professional help and got some advice on strengthening my leg muscles. It was much needed and really helped before the next race.
The last race I entered that would get me the final amount of points was The Cotswold Way 100 Ultra, a 102 mile race through the beautiful Cotswolds, I’d had a busy summer of festivals but I wasn’t away touring at this time so had a window in my diary. This race would get me the final 6 points to have enough to enter the UTMB 2017 so I took the plunge and paid up for it. The great thing about trail running is that there isn’t that many people doing it compared to road running and the Cotswolds way was a perfect example as there were only 130 or so runners at the start of this race. This race wasn’t easy and the weather was a complete bitch. Torrential rain through the whole night made this a real test of character. I’d teamed up with another runner during the race and if it wasn’t for his navigation system I would definitely have got lost in the fog, I was still running with a Timex stopwatch and didn’t have a Garmin at this point. I was sad to see this runner (Owen I think was his name) drop out with 20 miles to go after going through a hellish night together. I came in at 28 hours 27 minutes and finished this race in 23rd place! Woohoo, that sounds like a great place right? Well only 33 people finished this race, the elements got the better of a fair few souls out there, particularly in a small tent on top of a hill in the wind and rain at 3am when nobody wanted to leave, but I was determined to finish and get the points. I remember I felt fantastic running (very slowly) with Wilson spurring me on into Bath on a sunny Autumn Sunday afternoon with strangers asking what we’d just done and applauding our efforts. My parents had been a superb support team during this race with great encouragement and making sure I got the food I needed as well. So the points were in the bag, accumulated over a few months of intense trail running, two 100 milers and one 50 miler in 6 months done. UTMB Lottery time.
Over the next few months I toured and did some amazing gigs, running a few trails here and there plus the arrival of another baby girl into my life. I entered the UTMB lottery and honestly thought it would take me the 3 years. I was holding off entering all the races I’d previously done though hoping I would get a spot on first attempt, plus its an expensive hobby this and entries aren’t really cheap. Then one grim January day I was driving back from Heathrow on the motorway in torrential rain listening to the album Sirens by Nicolas Jaar. I got in and checked my email and there it was “Résultat tirage au sort / Draw results” in my inbox, I nervously clicked and the words – You have already pre-registered for the UTMB race.
The draw has taken place and we have the pleasure of confirming your registration for the UTMB race.
You must finalize your registration as from 12/01/2017 and before 25/01/2017.
I couldn’t believe it; I’d got in on the first attempt. I cheered loudly, called Wilson, called my Dad and then, Shit! I thought, now I’ve really got a race on my hands, I was nervous and thrilled, the hard work had paid off and I was going back to the Alps for the UTMB 2017!
Peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, apples, lucozade, snickers, water, money, railcard, watch, phone, long sleeve top and my camelbak for it all to go in.
I usually only need a day of doing pretty much nothing before I feel I have to do something that gets the blood pumping and the brain firing. The hip injury I’d picked up somehow back in April has been rested over the last few months and slowly I’ve been pulling the miles back in over the last few weeks. Crossing part of the city to get to the route didn’t take too long, as soon as I was on the trail the chaos of the roads disappeared and my whole brain and body relaxed. The green tunnels began and I put one foot in front of the other and enjoyed the journey.
A few days after that run to Winchester along the Itchen way I kept thinking about where else I could go that isn’t in the city, what other trail routes are there close enough to manage in a day? The Test Way popped in my head, as I know it finishes in Totton, which is only a few miles from home and my dad has done it so knows the route. I decided with dad as support to give it a go. 42 miles. What I thought and still think is, if I really want to enter the UTMB, which is over 100 miles with over 30,000 feet of ascent and descent, then I must be able to manage 42 miles at this stage. My thinking is I try and enter the 2017 UTMB, which gives me about 2 years to get ready. Seeing as you need 9 qualifying points to enter from just 3 races means it’s not going to be easy in any way, it’s in fact going to be by far the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted…EVER! I don’t physically and mentally know if it will be possible but it’s something I have to try.
So Wednesday it was, after a skinful with friends on the previous Sunday I was glad to be feeling good with the aftermath of tequila, ale, rum and then sausage and chips on a park bench now in the faded distance of my head and stomach. Strangely I was feeling a little nervous as if before a race or gig. I guess the looming distance of near on 50 miles was the culprit of the butterflies. We left at 6.30am and drove to Inkpen in Berkshire where the route starts and or finishes depending on what way you are going. Now I’m not gonna write out the route place by place as to be honest I don’t remember all that sort of stuff very well. I can say though that some of the route was truly beautiful and running through metre high cornfields alone under the British summer sky was a highlight that brought on a wonderful feeling of content and thoughtful loneliness. The route was marked well in some places and not very well in others, in fact it wasn’t marked at all which caused me to add a few miles to the journey. Main roads made me stressed, as nobody really likes running with the traffic. I got lost quite a lot to be honest and getting lost at around 43 miles didn’t add to my tired mood. But then a giant rainbow appeared after a heavy downpour, I could see the start and finish so that helped ease the mind a bit and I had to smile, I didn’t find any gold though. I would have taken a photo but by this time my phone had died due to the battery drain of Strava and GPS tracking my route. I was out of contact for the last 7 miles or so and was slightly relieved to see Dad waiting with the car as I came to the end of the route.
I learnt a few things on this run. I had to walk some of the way, which is part and parcel of doing such long distances for someone like me. Only the few elite can run non-stop and those men and woman are true athletes. I was very happy that I did manage to make it running and walking. It was hard at times but for most of the journey I was in a good place in my head, which is the most important thing when it comes to such long distances. The legs will hurt that’s a given but if I can keep my mind at ease then I stand a better chance. As much as I don’t like them, the 2 isotonic gels I took really helped. I couldn’t stomach chocolate very well though, the one snickers made me feel sick. Apples were very good which was something I’d never had before whilst out covering long distances. Having a support team was brilliant and cheers to my Dad for being at the different places with supplies and guidance, I think he’s gonna have to help quite a few more times over the next couple of years.
The legs were stiff for a few days after but nothing more than as if I’d run a road marathon so recovery was good. I burned around 7300 calories and was out there around 10 hours. Burning that many calories and being out there that long, both a first.
A week later whilst on a couple days off on tour I was in Switzerland so thought I’d try and get some miles under the belt up in the hills. I managed 24 miles with not much supplies and a lot of rain. But again I thought in my mind if I cant handle some of these hills then how am I going to handle running though the Alps?? Again my mind was in a good relaxed place and I realise it has to be to achieve what I want to do over the next 2 years.
On returning home from a recent musical jaunt to France and Switzerland I have entered my first 50 mile race along the South Downs Way and will attempt to enter the 100 mile race as well. These are certified qualifying races to enter the 2017 UTMB but they operate on a first come first served limited amount of runners basis. The races aren’t until next year, which gives me time to train and focus. I will have to run more qualifiers to stand a chance and then its potluck if you do get in to the UTMB. It’s one of the most popular trail runs in the world and entry is a lottery (for runners like me). We’ll have to wait and see.
This journey will take some time. Step by step. Onwards.
I am Dave Pen
On the train heading to the studio up near Cambridge to do some writing and recording. The sun is flickering and flashing through the trees and windows on the train, that’s a certain way to trigger a migraine. I’ve had to put my sunglasses on, I look a bit like a jackal with my black hat, black puffa coat and now black sunglasses, I have no intentions of starting a fire and I’m not carrying anything illegal. I’ve been on a blog lull of late and haven’t entered anything since the big slab of photographic evidence from The Quest for Mont Blanc. That seems far away now but I know she is still there waiting and taking anybody who chooses to attempt to summit and touch the top of her head. So from the open space way up on top of western Europe’s highest point to the crammed stuffy germ filled carriages of trains zooming to the capital of England. Nobody wants to sit next to someone else, including me if I’m honest and I’ve been carrying the lurgy for a few weeks now. Starting from my nose to my head, then my limbs and now my chest, which is just where I didn’t want it to set up phloem camp. Its hit me hard enough to have to cancel my final endurance test of the year which was my first ultra marathon of forty five miles down on the Dorset coast this Saturday. I’m truly gutted, I wanted to sign the year off with a big test and now I cant and it’s made me itchy and irritable. Fuck you germy virus fucks. Get out and don’t come back no more.
I’m not sure why I’ve not blogged of late, maybe I’ve been doing too much and finding the actual time to sit and write out what’s happened seems like a memory slog . A few random past thoughts are – Touring with BirdPen across Europe was like the miles we covered, some were long and slow and some went quickly and I enjoyed most of the ride, a record new zero funds made on the merchandise in Stockholm, a blown tire on the Autobahn, shady Czech traffic cops, horrible Swiss border Nazi’s, tambourine thief’s in Berlin, chocolate cake in Bern, happy faces at the front of the crowd, serious arm crossers at the front of the crowd, nobody at the front of the crowd. Dancing till dawn, coffee and doughnuts, good luck charms, welcoming promoters, backstage invaders, going deaf and vomiting, needing sleep and needing more sleep. The birds will always find the antennas and we will continue to transmit.
I’m on route to the studio to record vocals and guitars for new Archive material, Darius and I spent a day together last week demoing some ideas which I’m exited about, we then spent six hours watching a world war two three part drama and ate lots of food. Perhaps we were fuelling up for the oncoming fuzz marathon of playing live in 2015. Next year will be full on from what I can see and the new album, which is called Restriction, is out January 2015. It will be great to get it out there on the road. So 2015 will bring a whole wedge packed whack of new sounds. I will have three albums out by the end of spring. Archive – Restrictions in January BirdPen – In The Company Of Imaginary Friends in March and We are Bodies in April of which The Kendal mad man Robin Foster and I just mastered this wonderful album in Abbey road. Always a special place to work and topped off nicely by getting to see Underworld perform live straight to Vinyl in Studio one, what a nice way to celebrate finishing the album. Sometimes my job is truly the best job in the world! I don’t know how I’m going to remember all the words I have written though.
Final words and am gonna close this one, I’m DJ’ing with the Manglebird and a bunch of dear friends this Saturday, then off Warsaw and Berlin for Restrictions playback party’s next week. I have to admit I’m gutted my legs wont hurt, guess I’ll open the sets with Road to Nowhere by Talking heads. I am Dave Pen
I’m not going to go through this blog mile by mile so to speak, that would take far too long and be too painful, plus I can’t remember every mile as most of them after mile 13 just turned into a long slow blur of pain, wind, water stations and jelly baby induced desperation.
To start with I was all over the place trying to get ready, I left it a bit late to sort my gear out, it was 8.45 and I was still munching on a bacon sandwich down in the hotel restaurant. I was leaving at 9.15 and that 30 minutes went like the wind, unlike I would. Running 26.2 miles of one of Britain’s toughest and unforgiving marathons that is the Snowdonia Marathon.
After I got dropped off at Llanberis where the start of the race was, I popped in the porta loo for a quick wee, being slightly nervous at running my first marathon my alone time of quick relief wasn’t helped by the fact that probably one of the last surviving wasps of the Snowdonia region had decided to give it one more shout of space invading annoyance by hovering around my head whilst I tried to aim straight. Not being a fan of wasps in any way shape or armoured form I quickly got out of there sting free and went out in the fresh air against a massive stone wall alongside other blokes in spandex and vests.
I hung around near the start line taking in the vibes and pre race nerves with my Dads mate Dave. My dad was supposed to run the marathon with his mate Dave but had picked up a knee injury and decided (very wisely) I might add to drop out just a few hours before the start. These two cats go way back and have run a stack of marathons between them, with my dads best time on Snowdon being a strong 3 hours 12 minutes.
I got interviewed by the local Film crew alongside Dave about why I was running the race so gave the Trekstock charity a good plug and mentioned that this marathon was part of a few endurance events in the build up for the Archive Quest for Mont Blanc taking part next summer. Not sure the plug made the final edited TV cut though. My Welsh is zero.
Now it was race time. The long 6-mile hill from the start of Llanberis was a nice challenge and I dealt with it well. From the top of Pen-y-gwryd the downhill was a joy and I cruised naively down like a young fawn bounding across the moors. At the bottom of this, the course went into an off road section which was quick with a high tempo and I was focused at watching every step along the rocky and stony path. I was having a great time at this point and continued to do so. All was going well when I saw the 12 mile marker, I thought to myself this would be a really good run if it was a half marathon, oh to dream, and thinking like that was a warning sign of what was to come. I came through the halfway point to smiles and cheers from my family, I managed to catch a glimpse of my little 5 month old daughter wrapped up with her little face looking a little like I was to feel a few miles later, a bit lost, confused and in need of some TLC.
So after the happy faces of support I started to notice things getting a lot harder, I just didn’t realise the next 10 miles would all be up hill. It just went on and on and on, every corner I could see in the distance I started to pray it would level out after that and it just didn’t, and it took no prisoners. I started to notice a runner who kept over taking me then stopping about 100 metres in front and walking until I caught up with him and over took him, for him to then run past me for another 100 metres to then stop and walk again. He did this about 5 times, which slowly just made me want to stop as well, and it finally did. I finally had to stop and walk at about 16 miles. From then on it was a test of how far I could run before I had to stop and walk for a bit. I carried on running at a slower pace after this and water stations became mental havens for me where I knew I could stop for a bit and drink what was truly the sacred water of the mountains. I have never tasted water so nice than on that Marathon, to the point of carrying a little sealed cup of the stuff with me for the rest of the race as a good luck token or something like that. I was getting a bit desperate.
I carried on upwards and upwards then came to part of the route called Walnfowr. I had been told this was a proper “Tough Bit” of the race. Everyone around me including a bloke on a bike just stopped to a walk/shuffle. I tried to walk for a minute, and then shuffle for a minute, and then walk for a minute and so on to slowly make my way up. As I was doing this I heard a chap behind me chatting about how once the race was over they would hit the local pub for a couple of jager bombs and some whiskeys, I looked behind me to see who this rock n roll speaking hard core geezer might look like and low and behold it was an old friend from my skateboarding youth days, Mr Dean Jones. I said “dean Jones” to him to which he didn’t recognise me to which I then told him it was I, Dave Penney, he laughed and said what the hell are you doing here? I said the same thing to him and we struggled on together for about a minute or so before his legs stretched just a bit further than mine and he moved slowly forward. What a random place to see an old mate huh? Brilliant.
I got to the top of Walnfowr and the wind was howling across the wide-open space of this bleak looking puddle filled summit. It was proper grim and incredibly hard to stay motivated. Even the jelly babies were quite un-inspired. I stopped for another wee and just let the wind blow me into a high grassy bank, the term “pissing in the wind” ringing like a massive siren of truth in my head, I had stopped caring by then and wanted this ridiculous challenge to end. I pushed forward and made it to the descent, which was tuff in the totally opposite way of the previous 2 miles. Not being able to quite stop yourself moving very quickly downhill after 24 or so miles is a strange, painful and testing feeling on the hips, legs, feet, and brain. Down it went across the fells, rocks and mud. I had to keep my concentration in tact so as not to slip or fall or slip which would at that point, really hurt. It was with joyous sound to then be told by a supporting stranger “come on, the end is just around the corner”. This was music to my ears so I stepped it up as much as I could and around a beautiful grey-concreted corner was the end. I gave it my all as the crowd cheered me and the other runners coming to the end with legs burning, tears in my eyes and a proper wad of snot hanging from my nose I made it across the finish line in 4hours 09 minutes and 21 seconds.
I took my medal (a piece of welsh Slate), another bottle of water and wrapped in a space blanket walked alone to a corner and had a little sob whilst scoffing more jelly babies. I was thrilled to have finished and have never truly done anything as hard as that before in my life. What a brilliant and ridiculous sport marathon running is and the support and camaraderie was superb. A proper bunch of nutters do this and I kind of felt at home with it all. My family all supported me on this, which were lovely and my Dads mate Dave finished at around 5 and a half hours which was great.
I ended the day in a nice pub drinking ale watching the SFC beat Fulham, followed by a couple of rums and a curry. I went to bed a bit tipsy thinking about the next marathon I have in December.
Why am I doing this?
I am Dave Pen